Friday 30 October 2009

A thousand years underground – the amazing subterranean world of Bet Guvrin.

If you drive south from Bet Shemesh, you will arrive at one of these amazing places that seem to be commonplace in Israel. Bet Guvrin has had a long history, from mentions in the Book of Chronicles to the Crusaders, via Idumeans, Romans and Hasmoneans! The treasures from the Byzantine era, such as beautiful mosaic floors, can now be seen in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Even though the tel and the amphitheatre (still used for concerts) are of great interest, Bet Guvrin's best-kept riches are underground. During the one thousand years the town was inhabited from the third century BCE until late into the Arab period, the residents dug hundreds of caves, some as dovecotes, some for burials and some for the soft limestone itself, which they burnt to make the lime mortar which was needed all over ancient Israel, for building. Bet Guvrin was never larger than a big village. except in the Greek and Roman period, when its name was changed into Eleutheropolis (Town of the Free) and settlement was moved to the valley as it became a district capital, but it was always a small settlement with big ideas.

Surprisingly, building under the ground in Bet Guvrin was easier than building above ground, because of the especially soft limestone bedrock in the area. The ancient cave diggers at Bet Guvrin must have found the caves perfect protection against the scorching summer heat and they could always hide in them in times of danger, which they were, according to Josephus, still doing during the Second Jewish War.
With underground olive presses, bath houses and whole living quarters, as well as painted tombs with fascinating frescoes, Bet Guvrin, in its heyday, must have been a comfortable location to work and live in the heat of high summer.
Springtime sees the hillsides covered in flowers although any time of the year is good to visit. The routes are well signposted and both wheelchair and baby buggy accessible and the information and facilities excellent.

The park is located off Route 35, the Bet Shemesh-Kiryat Gat road, opposite Kibbutz Bet Guvrin.

Click here for a Google Map